Considering that the United Nations recently created a Bosnian war-crimes tribunal, "Nuremberg" could hardly have arrived at a more opportune moment.
Joseph Persico, the author of a fine biography of William Casey, displays sleuthing skills worthy of the former CIA director in tracing the course of the trial that sought to establish a basis for prosecuting international atrocities.
This is no dry-as-dust account, but a vivid reconstruction of the actions of the wartime Allies and the Nazi elite at Nuremberg. Using the private papers of the Nuremberg prison psychiatrist, the letters and journals of prisoners, and accounts of the battles between the prosecutors and judges, Mr. Persico easily carries us into a deeper understanding of the trials.
He suggests that justice at Nuremberg will remain a noble idea murdered by a gang of ugly facts. The United States designed the trials in the heady days after World War II. Nuremberg was to signal not only the triumph of superior might, but also the victory of superior morality.
Like the United Nations and the World Bank, the Nuremberg trials were an integral part of the postwar new world order that the wise men of the American establishment attempted to create after 1945. Today the United States lacks the confidence and the United Nations the power to realize that dream. The menace of a loaded gun remains more potent than a diplomatic brief.
Still, the great merit of this book is to remind us that the undertaking itself was a success. Nuremberg's most significant accomplishment was to confront the German people with crimes planned and perpetrated by the Nazis. Unlike World War I, the Germans could not seek refuge in the myth of a stab in the back. The trials showed that they had stabbed themselves in the back.
Some fascinating passages in "Nuremberg" center on the responses of the Nazi ringleaders to the overwhelming evidence of concentration camps and mass shootings introduced at the trials. One odious case was that of the former Nazi governor-general of Poland, Hans Frank.
In order to overcompensate for his partly Jewish ancestry, Frank became a fervent anti-Semite. So determined was Frank to prove his loyalty to Nazism that he had all his remarks condemning the Jews, and boasting of exploiting 1.3 million Poles for forced labor, recorded for posterity. Frank's voluminous records would form one of the key sources for the Nuremberg prosecutors. At the trials, Frank veered between acknowledging and repudiating guilt for his crimes.
Hermann Goering, by contrast, mustered up his old bravado. Goering, whose outsized personality made him a favorite with American GIs, managed to bully most of his fellow defendants into refusing to plead guilty. Indeed, Mr. Persico shows that under cross-examination the cunning Goering even got the upper hand over his famous American prosecutor, Robert Jackson.
Goering managed to cheat the hangman as well. Mr. Persico, who seeks to clear up the mystery surrounding Goering's suicide, argues that upon entering prison Goering secreted a cyanide capsule in his luggage and persuaded a member of the prison staff to take pieces of luggage from the baggage room for him.
Perhaps the most sinister figure at the trial was the cultivated technocrat Albert Speer, one of the few in the dock who received a jail term rather than a death sentence. Though Speer used millions of foreign workers as slave labor, he managed to shift responsibility onto his boorish subordinate Fritz Sauckel. By taking the blame for Nazism in the broadest sense but avoiding particulars, Speer managed to tell the judges what they wanted to be told.
Speer portrayed the Nazis as embodying the dangers of a military technology that would pose even greater dangers to humanity in the future. As Mr. Persico puts it, Speer presented himself "not as a man pleading for his life, but as one who had something valuable to tell them, someone with a vision born of redemption after immersion in evil."
Indeed, as Speer had calculated, his contrition contrasted starkly with the stonewalling of his colleagues. In the teeth of the evidence, Generals Jodl and Keitel denied culpability for atrocities on the Eastern front. Foppish foreign minister Joachim Ribbentrop claimed Germany had merely emulated America's occupation of the New World.
Mr. Persico, who illuminates the pitiful character of most of the Nazi leadership, does not draw the obvious conclusion that there was nothing particularly exceptional about the character of most of Hitler's henchmen. Ordinary men committed extraordinary crimes. In that sense, the spirit of Nuremberg lives on in Bosnia.
Title: "Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial"
Author: Joseph E. Persico
Length, price: 520 pages, $25.95